Opinion

The time is now for free and universal college

By Gail Mellow |  

March 29, 2017 |  

(Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)

In cities and states across the nation, there's a growing movement to re-imagine the minimum amount of education Americans need to succeed. Just as a high school degree was paramount in the 20th Century, it's becoming increasingly clear that the 21st Century will require us to make free, universal college education available to all.  

It took more than 50 years, beginning with Massachusetts in 1852 and ending in 1918 with Mississippi, for all states to adopt laws providing for free primary education for all children. And then another 30 years before attending high school was a routine part of American’s lives. In 1910, only one out of ten American teenagers graduated high school; by 1940 slightly more than half were graduates.

States were slow to embrace the idea, reluctant to pull youth from laboring in farms, mines and factories, and worried about the burden paying for public high school for all would place on taxpayers. It’s now hard to imagine a time when a high school degree wasn’t guaranteed, and paid for, by government. 

We are now at a similar crossroads. Employers demand a college education. As the transition from an agricultural to an industrial economy propelled the high school movement forward, we are now in the midst of a vast shift in what’s required to be successful today. A Georgetown University study found that by 2020, 65 percent of all jobs will require education beyond high school. 

The benefits of a college degree extend well beyond improving the financial well being of families and our nation. Increased educational attainment is associated with a number of individual and societal benefits. People who attend college live longer lives. Polling shows they are happier. And they participate more in the civic life of our nation by voting more frequently and engaging in volunteer and charitable activities. 

It’s why localities – in red states like Tennessee and blue states like Oregon, in communities as different as Los Angeles and Detroit – are embracing public funding for the first two years of college. More than 190 municipalities and states have created free tuition programs using a mix of public and private funds. 

Here in New York we have an opportunity to blaze a pioneering path that can serve as a model for the nation. Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to create the Excelsior Scholarships would make New York the first state to make college tuition-free for students seeking an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. The costs of earning a bachelor’s degree would be free for all New Yorkers in families earning less than $125,000. 

At my campus, where students wrestle with competing demands of work, family and school this will allow more students to focus on their studies and more quickly earn a degree. It will also inspire students who waver on whether to attend college, to pursue a college degree. In Tennessee, the pipeline from high school to college grew with a 13 percent increase in college attendance. Republican Gov. Bill Haslam has now proposed expanding the program to cover not only high school graduates, but adults, seeking to encourage them to get a two-year degree. 

As with the movement to embrace public high school education, expanding our national minimum education standards to college will be driven by states and localities. Yet today’s economy doesn’t allow us to move as slowly as the high school movement.  

Gov. Cuomo’s proposal puts New York at the forefront of this growing national movement and sets the bar for other states. Of course, there are significant questions. Seventy-seven percent of the students at my community college have an average household income of less than $25,000 annually and most must work to take care of their families. Is the requirement to attend full-time and graduate with an associate’s degree within two years realistic? 

But we can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Gov. Cuomo’s proposal is more than a good start. It’s a visionary idea that years from now we will look back and wonder how anyone could oppose the idea that a college education should be universal and free.

Dr. Gail Mellow is the president of LaGuardia Community College. 

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